Hey! You there. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking ‘FINALLY, the season has started properly. Opening Weekend! The cobbles, the white roads of Strade Bianche, the crosswinds of Paris-Nice, are all upon us. We can almost smell the Monuments on the horizon, perhaps even sense the promise of the Giro d’Italia in the not too distant future.’

Listen, I hear you. I do. It’s very easy to wave a dismissive hand at the early season once the spring Classics begin, but once again, I’m here to argue the case for the Early Season. The six weeks of amuse bouche that whet our appetite for the season, give us die-hards something to savour while we wait for the main course, and even offer a few clues as to who to look out for when we finally arrive at the meat in the cycling season sandwich (vegan alternatives are available).

The early season is unpredictable; the bigger names mostly don’t begin their seasons until later, so it’s a chance to lay eyes on riders who don’t always see the limelight not only showing themselves at the pointy end of the racing, but even managing to grab a win here or there. Of course, we want to watch the best, but in the early season we get a chance to view the young guns, the brave baroudeurs, and the unsung heroes who will blend into the background later in the season. Plus we get a hint of who's really going for it among the big guns, trying to get a head start on their rivals (I'm looking at you Mads Pedersen).

I know we don’t all have access to all the races at the moment so it’s tricky to go back and watch some of these, but if you can find highlights, here are my top ten early season highlights, all of which occurred prior to Opening Weekend.

1. Vintage French climbing

Some early season races don’t even register as familiar names, especially when they’re newly designed versions of previous races, but it doesn’t mean there’s any less likelihood of fireworks. The Classic Var (16 Feb) is the new one-day precursor to the now two-day long Tour des Alpes Maritimes, and it produced some brilliant racing.

I urge you to check out the final few kilometres of this race, which saw a clutch of brilliant riders attacking one another with reckless abandon up the side of a narrow, gnarly climb in the French Alps. What's not to love? David Gaudu playing the role of agitator, Romain Bardet doing what he does best on a climb he was Strava KOM on, and a finish that will leave you gasping in disbelief. Let's just say, Tobias Johannessen of Uno-X will be rueing that mistake for a long time to come. Go back and watch the end of this race and tell me your life isn't better off for having done so. It's what cycling is all about.

2. Lotte steps up

In terms of significance to the season ahead, this one had to be seen to be believed. We all knew the World Champion was upping her game when it came to climbing and potentially even making a move towards becoming a future GC rider, but it was really something to see it in action in the UAE Women’s Tour.

On the decisive stage of the race, Lotte Kopecky moved clear on Jefel Hafeet with a select group of climbers, and proved her mettle by taking them on and beating them, proving that not only do SD Worx have their hands full managing two top GC riders this season, but that we can expect a thrilling season on the road in the marquee stage races. A brilliant, measured ride, that truly spells danger for the rest of the women's peloton.

3. Barta breakaway brilliance

It’s been a strong start to the season for Team Breakaway. With a number of victories over the amorphous peloton at large, it may only be down to the erratic and unpredictable nature of early season racing, but equally for the optimists among us, it could be significant, and herald a wind of change vis-a-vis 'just bloody going for it'.

Arguably the highlight of all the escapee victories so far this season, Movistar’s Will Barta’s win at the Volta Comunitat a Valencia was truly special – one of those race days that stick with you long after the TV has been turned off and you’ve gone about your day. Setting off solo on the final climb of the day, Barta was alone for 80km of racing, and when the race entered the city of Valencia, his time in the lead seemed set to expire.

But with the expert disruption techniques of teammate Oier Lazkano combined with the numerous twists, turns and corners of the city circuit, Barta was able to dig in and stay clear of the bunch to take his first pro victory in style. Pure poetry.

4. Queen Gigante of Willunga

Cast your minds back – waaay back – to the Tour Down Under. Some winter sun for those of us in the northern hemisphere, whetting our appetites for what was to come later in the season, we saw some great racing, including the comeback of Sarah Gigante. After exploding onto the scene as a teenager when she won the National Championships in 2019, Gigante subsequently struggled with illness and injury.

Fast forward to 2024, and Gigante has a new team (AG Insurance Soudal) and a new lease of life - she set an incredible time up Willunga Hill to break her own QOM and win the queen stage and the race, thrilling her army of fans in the process. It promises much for her season ahead with new team, and she will most definitely be one for the bigger teams to keep their eye on.

5. Del Toro spoils the sprinters’ party

We stay in Australia for our next highlight. UAE Team Emirates have a squad packed with exciting young talent, but it was Mexican champion Isaac Del Toro who showed us his capabilities first, with an explosive ride on stage 2 of the Tour Down Under.

Surging clear of a bunch who thought they were heading for a sprint with a kilometre to go, Del Toro showed incredible power to stay clear and take his first pro victory. A great example of a young super talent simply not sticking to the script - we love to see it.

6. Kraak-ing SD Worx

Speaking of spoiling parties, one of the main challenges facing the women’s peloton in 2024 is how to beat Team SD Worx-ProTime. It’s a challenge that Marianne Vos proved wasn’t impossible at Omloop on Sunday, but before that, FDJ-SUEZ’s Amber Kraak had already shown a stacked SD Worx line-up a clean pair of heels in the UAE, with another win for Team Breakaway.

It was a brave woman who would go clear in the closing stages of a nailed-on sprint stage, on the flattest terrain of the week – which in the UAE is really saying something. But that is what Amber Kraak did when she attacked from her breakaway group and stormed towards the finish line despite the rampaging approach of Lorena Wiebes and co. What a victory.

7. Lazkano can’t lose

2023 was a break-out year for Movistar’s Oier Lazkano, as he showed the cycling world what he could do in the Classics, before winning the Spanish national championships. As Spanish national champion, riding in a Spanish team, Lazkano took on the newest one-day classic to rival Strade Bianche – the Clasica Jaen – earlier this month, and he did so in style. The race is a future classic make no mistake, so if you’re not tuned in during the early season you’re missing a good one.

This year’s edition was the best yet, with a strong line-up featuring Wout van Aert, Sepp Kuss, and Tim Wellens among others. Van Aert punctured but Lazkano was able to hold off challenges from Kuss, Tratnik and Wellens and drop his final remaining breakaway companion Nicolas Prodhomme with 12km remaining to the line. He made short work of the narrow gravel climbs showing both his power and tenacity, to raise his arms for the first time this season – he later went on the podium at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

8. Teenager upsets the stars in Oz

The Australian races always boast a strong line-up because of their World Tour status, and the Cadel Road Race was no different, featuring basically the same set of riders who had completed the Tour Down Under the previous week. The one-day race often sees exciting racing and sometimes a reduced bunch sprint at the finish, but when Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig attacked on the final climb, a small group drew clear of the bunch, and a late breakaway trio was established heading toward the finish in Geelong.

One of the trio was 19-year-old Rosita Reijnhout of Visma-Lease A Bike, and when she struck out solo with just under 5km remaining on the race it looked inevitable that she would be brought back. Fading fast in the final kilometre, Uttrup Ludwig and UAE Team ADQ’s Dominika Wlodarczyk closed in fast but somehow the teenager was able to find another gear and power over the line, to take her first pro win and stun the rest of the field.

9. Laurance dominates on uphill slog

One of my favourite of the early season stage races, Étoile de Bessèges is always unpredictable and usually boasts a pretty stacked line-up, and this year proved similar. Lidl-Trek’s Mads Pedersen was on his early season rampage and looked set to sweep up all the stages at the race, but stage 2 – technically the first stage following the cancellation of stage 1 as a result of farmer’s protests – kicked off with a surprise for the Dane.

On the final uphill drag to the line, Alpecin-Deceuninck’s Axel Laurance was able to pull clear of the rest and outsprint Pedersen to the line, on arguably one of the most gruelling stretches of sprinting on the racing calendar. The  U23 World Champion really showed his class and dug deep to win the first stage of the race, and made sure the big boys will take notice of him going forward.

10. Sprint queens return

There’s nothing like a comeback, especially in a sport beset with athletes in various stages of recovery from illness and injuries. Two of the women’s peloton’s top fast women had struggled with issues in 2023, and both showed they were ready to burst into 2024 at their best at the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana.

Elisa Balsamo underwent facial surgery after a serious crash in May 2023, and Marianne Vos endured a long period out of the sport to have iliac artery surgery in the autumn. Balsamo has given fans something to get excited about, winning two sprints at the race and whetting appetites for her battles with the other major sprint talents in 2024.

Marianne Vos being back in contention is always something to celebrate. She narrowly missed out on winning the first bunch sprint in Valencia and was best of the rest the following day too, coming second behind Marlen Reusser’s breakaway win. Some may have been surprised to see her back on form and taking the win at Omloop het Nieuwsblad on Opening Weekend but of course, for those of us who managed to catch some of this race, we already knew she was firing on all cylinders.

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